I absolutely love higher education, in principle. I really buy into the idea of it: that you have a group of people of unquenchable curiosity, whose job it is to work together to dig into the social and physical world and share their knowledge with students, their colleagues, and the public. It revolves around thinking about and understanding the world as well as we can, from social morals to the zinging of invisible particles, from open heart surgery to what love means, and anything and everything in between. The possibilities are, literally, infinite. Universities preserve and analyse historical and contemporary culture, do work that saves human and non-human lives, provide what can be an enormously fulfilling life for scores of employees, and offer students the opportunity to develop their minds and access different kinds of jobs.
On the flipside, in practice, there is a fair amount in universities to dislike. They’re not necessarily guilty of all of the things they’re always accused of, but they are not necessarily shining visions of wondrousness, either. They magnify social inequality by channelling affluent, white, male, able-bodied students higher into the job market than people who don’t fit into those categories. They’re often exclusive in several ways, being ageist, sexist, racist, snobbish, familyist, and so on; a lot of the knowledge they create is also not accessible to the outside world and there can be brutal competition between researchers. They can be incredibly toxic places to study and work.
Some of this toxicity is down to how universities are governed through numbers, and this works from the outside as well as the inside. Externally, various kinds of measurements on university rankings and other ‘assessment exercises’ can be helpful in some ways but are also problematic – I’ve written about this a fair bit. When it comes to internal management, if you’re employing scores of staff and teaching thousands of students, there must be some kind of organisational system otherwise there’d be chaos. But if the system is overly prescriptive, based on misleading numbers, and driven by always increasing improving the machine’s performance, then the components (i.e. staff and students) will suffer. You can’t permanently keep your foot on the floor, expecting the car to go faster and faster – you’ll either run out of road or the engine will lunch itself. There is increasing and justified concern this is what is happening, and staff and students are in the firing line.
I’m not Spartacus. No, me neither.
Pretty much all of the problems are known about and the evidence is out there. There is piles and piles of research in and around universities that shows that, why, and often how, significant problems exist and are maintained or even made worse. It’s also important to note that we can back up the golden sides of the argument, too; if that wasn’t the case, there’d be less people working there, but as it is, a lot of people become disillusioned and leave. Whether the glass is half empty or half full depends to some extent on who you are, where you’re working or studying, and where you are in your career. But if the problems in higher education are so well-documented, and genuinely systematic, then why are things not really getting any better? One part of this is because we often can’t identify (or can’t say) exactly who’s behaving badly.
When you do academic research with people, it’s standard practice for those people to be anonymous. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. It’s an underlying principle of research ethics that the people who take part in studies aren’t made to feel uncomfortable, and can’t be identified by anyone else. This anonymity means that people feel less wary of taking part in your study and are more likely to talk to you, and talk honestly – they’re not going to be so open if they know their boss or colleague is reading the transcript. We’re not looking to name and shame people, it’s more about seeing how people see and experience the world, what kinds of issues are out there, and hopefully how we can address them. If someone admits to seriously breaking the law or of there’s a case of people being in danger, then you’re duty-bound to pass that on, and you make that clear at the outset. However, tied in with this, is that universities (at least in places like the the UK) often don’t allow you to undertake research within them unless you make it organisationally anonymous, and this is because Reputation is King.
Universities, particularly as they are forced to compete with each other, are hyper-aware of how they look to the outside world. League tables are part of this, and universities are driven towards constantly improving their performance according to these metrics – that’s their point. There’s even a reputation ranking, which is about as akin to a dog chasing its own tale as you can get. Whenever a ranking’s annual results comes out, senior leadership and marketing teams scroll through to cherry-pick and publicise the bits they like. On the occasions when they’re not doing well, the default position it is to ignore it (or say that the ranking methodology is flawed if it makes the news). They don’t bitch about them when they come out top, though. Public image is seen as essential – if a university looks good, people will want to work for them, they’ll get more research funding, and students will want to study there. Some are more bullet-proof to scandal than others: if students Harvard and Yale were miserable, it wouldn’t matter so much to their recruitment because people know that they get major kudos for having those places’ degrees on their CVs. Other universities don’t have that ‘luxury’ and so have to tread very carefully.
The upshot of this is that universities seem to be terrified of bad news, and when these things do transpire, the PR exercises swing into action, or they try to sweep it under the carpet. National statistics give you some of the story on spending, vice chancellor salaries, or inequalities in the student and staff populations. Headlines on Oxbridge admissions make headlines every year, for example. The default response is that they’re working hard to open up, and it’s not their fault that the education system is unfair. Sort of true, but it’s a dodge, a very partial answer to the question. And then you have other things that happen under the radar and never see the light of day. Imagine that a senior member of staff, a professor or member of the leadership team, is caught in the act of impropriety with their literal or financial pants down. The ‘best’ thing for the university to do would be to deal with the whole thing quietly, which they could potentially do unless the police were involved and the story was leaked. If it’s kept hush-hush, then that person could go on to work somewhere else. Hearsay within the sector can come too late: ‘oh no, you’re not working with them…didn’t you know? Everyone else does.’ Whistleblowing can be a great way of losing your job, and unequal power relations ensure that calling out the monsters is ‘disincentivised’, and this allows people to get away with it, and maybe do it again.
Problems and Solution
So there are two problems here. The first is that running a large organisation of any kind leads to reducing issues and people to numbers in some way, and if you start to see those things simply as numbers, then it can mask the real issues and effects of optimising performance. The second problem is that there is always a shit somewhere in the system, but it can be very difficult to call him out. (Yes, it’s almost certainly a him.) When you combine these two within a fundamental principle of preserving organisational reputations – rather than social and mental health – then the human outcomes can’t be good. If anything, the answer is to develop a real culture of accountability, not so much around productivity, but around more rounded, fair, and considered outcomes. That counts as much for the anonymous organisational monsters as much as the individual ones.